In response to public and media pressure, the Seattle Police Department released a dashboard-camera video of an SPD officer punching and subduing hit-and-run suspect Leo Etherly while arresting him on October 6. The video viewing was plagued by technical issues, including, bizarrely, a Level-11 video of Lionel Ritchie's "Dancin' on the Ceiling," which blasted from one of the channels SPD used in its attempts to show the video with sound. (They never did get the audio going.)
Attorney James Egan, who is representing Etherly and sued this week SPD for allegedly refusing to allow him to release the video publicly, received a copy of the video through the discovery process in a police-brutality lawsuit against SPD. (In a cell-phone conversation with a colleague during this morning's press conference, Egan deadpanned, "News flash: They're going to give the video to me personally.") However, SPD told Egan they needed more time to provide a copy of the video that he could release publicly in response to his separate public-disclosure request.
The crucial part of the video shows two officers stopping Etherly after he walks through a parking lot, leaving a van SPD says he was driving during the alleged hit-and-run. (A person driving a white van struck and injured a female cyclist, then fled the scene, according to witnesses cited in the police report; witnesses also reported a license plate number closely matching the number on the van Etherly was leaving).
In the video, Etherly is seen refusing to keep his hands on the hood of the police car, slapping officers' hands away, and refusing to provide his name. "When we are detaining someone, we generally like them to stay still, [and] this guy is obviously moving," SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb said this morning.
Then, as two officers hold him down by the arms on the hood of the car, a third officer—identified in media reports as Officer Faust—tells him to turn around so he can be handcuffed. Faust then holds Etherly down by the face and throat—a maneuver SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb described today as "hand on a man's throat"—and Etherly yells, "Stop choking me!" Faust responds: "I'm not choking you! I'm trying to get your head away from me.
Etherly then spits in Faust's face, spraying a second officer. At that point, Faust punches Etherly swiftly in the eye and all three officers pull him to the ground. "Fucking idiot!" one of the officers yells.
"You can use a reasonable amount of force to ensure that the assault stops," Whitcomb said. "If you want to take them into custody, you need to get them in cuffs. Ultimately, you may as well punch someone if they spit on you."
Once the officers have Etherly cuffed, they confirm that he's breathing and call EMS. Etherly spends several minutes screaming that his eye is hurt, and yelling things like, "I've got a fucking family like you!" and "Keep your hands off me, bro!"
Watch the whole video (complete with sound!) for yourself here:
The incident has prompted a civil-rights lawsuit by Egan, a prominent local civil-rights attorney, and is being investigated by the Office of Professional Accountability, which looks into claims of police misconduct. According to Whitcomb, any SPD use of force has to be reasonable and necessary, and any investigation has to consider the context in which force was used. However, Whitcomb added, "Sometimes, during the course of our duties, things don't go perfectly."
One odd side effect of the investigation into Etherly's alleged crimes—assaulting an officer (the spitting incident) and fleeing the scene of an accident (the bicyclist hit-and-run)—could be that neither allegation ultimately gets prosecuted. That's because after filing misdemeanor charges on each allegation with the City Attorney's office, SPD decided that spitting at an officer should be considered felony assault.
That meant they had to withdraw the charges at the city level and re-file them as felonies with King County. (Because both charges technically constitute one incident, the city attorney's office says, they can't be separated).
King County declined to charge Etherly with either alleged felony, and the charges went back to the city, which now has to decide whether to press misdemeanor charges again. City attorney Pete Holmes' spokeswoman, Kimberly Mills, says the city attorney's office will consider the charges in the light of more recent evidence, but for now, they remain in limbo.
Several reporters asked Whitcomb why Egan had received such a swift response to his records request, when reporters routinely have to wait weeks or months for responses that are often meaningless or incomplete. "We want to be more responsive," Whitcomb said. "We've been trying really hard to be more open."
The officers involved in the incident are still on active duty.